The MOOC is a model that invites questions about the role, perhaps even the redundancy, of teachers in a self-directed learning environment. Although key people deliver what could be called core content in a MOOC (although even attending to that is optional) these people are perhaps not teachers in the conventional sense.
Clearly they have a deeper knowledge of their topics than (most) others in the MOOC and presumably have been invited to contribute because they have spent time thinking about and working in a particular area of specialisation. But their role is as much 'peer' with interested others as it is 'teacher' in a conventional, and admittedly rather antiquated, sense of an authoritative figure who directs the learning of others. Their role could be defined more as content providers or catalysts. Perhaps it makes more sense to give them a formal title like ''Catalyst" - as in this week's Catalyst is Martin Weller - to signify their role as something other than presenter or lecturer. Content Provider sounds too generic and distanced - Catalyst is more inviting. As I mentioned in my last post emotion is important to teaching and learning: education is not the filling of a bucket, but a lighting of the fire (William Butler Yeats). And its important to think about the labels and language we use and their emotional freight.
And perhaps there is a need for some other support, even for self-directed learning and self-directed learners, besides that which might be provided by Catalysts. Perhaps instead of teachers, we need coaches, as explained in
Atul Gawande's piece in the New Yorker
For one thing a coach is focused on the learner, rather than the learner being focused on the teacher which seems a more appropriate power and authority relationship for a self-directed learning experience - and here I'm not thinking just about the MOOC but about what education more generally might look like in the near future - and for another, in a coaching relationship, as Gawande explains, the person who is being coached can be positioned as an already competent practicing professional, in the case of say, a professional tennis player who still has and still needs a coach. Learners in a MOOC, or any self-directed learning environment do already have many competencies, or can learn as they go along, and mostly can make their own way.
Gawande's point is that coaching is about helping people do what they are already doing, but doing it better.
How much more rewarding might it be if there were Coaches who could observe self-directed learners in action and tell us how to do it better. There are already informal Coaches out there in the MOOC membership and it could be argued that the MOOC model positions virtually everyone as a potential Coach to others. But in Gawande's discussion he is talking about much more focused support than generic tips, like say, How to Get the Most out of the MOOC - which is not deny their usefulness, in fact they are essential. But perhaps people who perform this role might better be termed Guides.
We all know how one piece of relatively simple information can make a huge difference, even when we know a practice or a subject pretty well, but someone has to help us identify what that piece of information is.
As Gawande also outlines in the piece, some teachers already teach in this way and are instinctively coaching rather than teaching. Its just that its not what first comes to mind when we think of teaching but it might soon be and perhaps might soon have to be if self-directed learning becomes increasingly the norm.